As many may be aware, Disney’s the Princess and the Frog opened in theaters on Friday. The animated flick is a throwback to Disney’s classic “princess” movies, but more remarkably, it is the first of such flicks to feature a notably black [African-American] princess, voiced by Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls, Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency).
Since Disney declared its plans for this movie in 2006, there has been controversy surrounding it. Originally, the script featured a young woman named Maddy who worked for a wealthy white woman as a chambermaid in New Orleans during the late 1800s, but the script was changed amidst harsh criticism by black Americans, who alleged, among other things, that Maddy was a ‘slave’ name, the character was subservient to her white boss and relied on a [white] man to rescue her. And then there was the original title–The Frog Princess, which many criticized for associating blacks with animals.
In response, Disney changed the title and the character’s name from Maddy to Tiana, which itself is still unacceptable to some who dismiss it as a ‘ghetto’ name. The storyline now has Tiana as an aspiring restaurateur in 1920s New Orleans who gets transformed into a frog when she kisses narcissistic Prince Naveen, a visiting foreign monarch. Despite the changes, chatter in the blogosphere will tell you that the movie is still a firestorm of controversy. This controversy fittingly proves my theory that dealing with blacks and black issues is a ‘delicate trick’–a damned if do, damned if you don’t kind of conundrum.
The biggest controversy about the movie centers on the ethnicity of Prince Naveen, a character Disney has intentionally made ethnically ambiguous. The character hails from the fictional country of Maldonia, which IMDB.com lists as a country in the Mediterranean, which encompasses parts of southern and eastern Europe as well as the Middle East. The character’s name ‘Naveen’ has been confirmed as East Indian or Middle Eastern, meaning “new”; though he is voiced by a Brazilian actor, he speaks with a French accent, further complicating his ethnicity. As a result of this ethnic ambiguity, many ‘brown’ peoples (Native Americans, Hispanics, East Indians, Middle Easterners, Creole French, et al) have claimed him as their own. Although, I’d like to say, considering his name and other details in his history, including his mother wearing a sari, I’d say that he’s most likely of East Indian or Middle Eastern ethnicity. Prince Naveen’s ethnicity is a fire rod of controversy from two angles. Many people believe it’s Disney’s way of compromising non-whites for the sake of the mighty dollar; that it to say, by making him ambiguous, they can ensure that many people won’t feel alienated by two lead black characters. While I agree with the this point, I accept that Disney is a corporation. I won’t criticize it for trying to ensure a profit.
However, controversy number two is more interesting. Blacks accuse Disney of belittling black men, by making Prince Naveen non-black, and furthermore, juxtaposing Prince Naveen, the hero, with the very dark Dr. Facilier, the evil voodoo doctor. Many black bloggers and sociologists have argued that Disney should’ve made the prince African American or black other, and that not doing so was a slap in the face of black men, who are only portrayed as criminals and sidekicks, but not heroes and romantic love interests.
I understand the argument for wanting a black prince, but I also think there are many creative reasons for sticking with Prince Naveen as he is. As I mentioned earlier in the article, the early struggles of the first script proves that making this film was a delicate task to undertake. There are many ways they could’ve offended blacks, who’ve been portrayed poorly since the inception of cinema and films. However, I am not convinced an African or African American prince would’ve worked for this feature.
It is important to recognize that this is an American fairytale, and in many ways, the most American of all the fairytales. It takes place in New Orleans and not in a land faraway or Africa. Tiana is African American. America doesn’t have a monarchy, and therefore the prince had to be an outsider. I’m aware that being an outsider doesn’t exclude being black, so I’ll explain. Some bloggers and message board users have suggested that Prince Naveen should’ve been black African, similar to Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America. The problem with this is perception. Disney’s challenge was to find a prince whose royal lifestyle, wealth and splendor was on par with those royals in its other princess fairytales. Disney couldn’t make the prince visibly white, for socio-racial reasons.
While I understand it’s a fairytale/fantasy and Disney could’ve made up whatever they wanted, the critics of the movie have consistently analyzed it for its real life impact on black children, and if I am to follow this line of thought, it would be very wrong to mislead black children about the realities in Africa. In summary, Prince Naveen was a compromise, but not a bad one. For the purposes of the film, he works best.
Some black commentators worry that a non-black prince will sow the seed of divide between black women and black men, and will damage the self-esteem of black males. I don’t want to dismiss their concerns, but it’s important to remember that the emphasis in Disney princess movies is the princess and not the prince. I don’t doubt black male children will watch this movie, but I am betting the bulk of those who will watch and cherish it will be female. Furthermore, the underlying fear of the commentary seem to be that black females will no longer desire the black male as a romantic partner, a fear that completely contradicts reality. Studies have shown again and again that black women and Asian males are the least likely to date outside of their race, while black males and Asian females are the most likely to do so.
I think some of the harsh criticisms, many of which came out months in advance of the flick’s theatrical release, are ridiculous. I will say in conclusion that the final film is the least offensive Disney could’ve made it without losing the Disney quality and touch. I’ll reiterate here: making this movie was a delicate trick. It was a damned if you do; damned if you don’t situation and I think it turned out decently enough, even once the famous expression “you can’t please everyone” is considered. In the future, if or when Disney attempts to make a second black princess movie, I hope it will be bolder. I hope to see a black prince or hero. But until then, just enjoy The Princess and the Frog.